Gaining notoriety is a funny thing. By definition, notoriety is “the state of being famous or well known for some bad quality or deed.” Gaining typically means the “act of obtaining something that is desirable.” So, why do we talk about someone gaining notoriety? Is it to be considered the act of obtaining the desirable state of being famous for a bad deed? I guess it depends on who is doing the obtaining! I’ve been studying up on Belle Starr, who gained notoriety as an American outlaw of the Old West. From all I’ve learned, it doesn’t seem like gaining notoriety bothered her one bit!
A Starr is Born
When Myra Maybelle Shirley was born in 1848, her parents probably didn’t have a clue that she would one day become known as a notorious American outlaw, although she did have an exciting branch on her family tree. Her mother, Eliza Hatfield Shirley, was a relative of the Hatfield family that was famous for its participation in the Hatfield-McCoy feud. Myra “Little May” Shirley was born on her father’s farm near Carthage, Missouri. She lived there until the 1860s, when her father bought an inn and livery stable in Carthage.
It seems the childhood of the future notorious outlaw was better than that of many girls of the day. She received an education at the Carthage Female Academy, which her father had helped found. In 1864, the Shirleys moved to Scyene, Texas, after a Union attack on Carthage.
If Belle’s childhood had a major downside, it was probably that she grew up with a couple of fellows who were destined to become notorious outlaws themselves—Cole Younger, who grew up to join Frank and Jesse James in their famed crime spree and James Reed, whom she married.
James Reed was the son of a prosperous farmer from Carthage and James had plans of going into the family business. The Reed family had also moved to Scyene, after the Civil War. When Belle married James Reed in 1866, he seemed like a pretty good catch. Reed and Belle had two children, a daughter, Pearl, and a son, Eddie. Throw in a family dog and the Reeds might have looked like they were going to live the American dream. But, try as he might, Reed was not successful at farming, so he reevaluated his skill set and decided to become an outlaw instead. When a warrant was issued for his arrest for murder in Arkansas, the family moved west to California.
It was there that Reed met up with the Starr clan, a family of Cherokee outlaws, who mentored him in his new profession. The Starrs were known as cattle rustlers, horse thieves and bootleggers. Reed also ran with the James and Younger gangs. In 1874, Reed was accused of a stagecoach robbery and Belle was accused of being an accomplice. The couple high-tailed it back to Texas, but Reed was shot and killed by authorities, in Paris, Texas.
Hitch Your Wagon to a Starr
The widow gave her children over to relatives and set off into her own career as an outlaw. It’s possible that Belle had a three-week marriage to Charles Younger, uncle of Cole Younger, in 1878. The rumors can’t be substantiated, however. Dealing strictly with what we know, following Reed’s death, Belle joined the Starr Clan and moved to Indian Territory, near Fort Smith, Arkansas. In 1880, she married Samuel Starr and Myra Maybelle Shirley Reed officially became known as Belle Starr.
Belle Starr honed her outlaw skills. She acted as a front for bootleggers and learned how to fence for cattle rustlers and horse thieves. She was also a pro at harboring fugitives! You might say the fugitives were “saved by the Belle!” (Well, I don’t know if you would say that, but I couldn’t resist.) Belle was so good at her job that she could fund her own bribery whenever she was caught.
Things were going well for the notorious, lady outlaw and her husband until they found themselves in the sights of Judge Isaac Parker, better known as the “Hanging Judge.” The duo was charged with horse theft in November 1882, and a few months later, a jury found them guilty.
The Hanging Judge was showing his softer side the day he handed down their sentences. Since it was the first conviction for both Mr. and Mrs. Starr, he sentenced them each to a year in prison. It is said that he was hoping they would “decide to become decent citizens.” The pair was sent to Detroit on a railroad prison car. They were released for good behavior after serving nine months.
Sam Starr was killed in a gunfight in 1886. It was then that Belle announced her common-law marriage to Jim July Starr. The good news is that she didn’t have to get new monogrammed towels!
It’s difficult to say if Judge Parker got his wish and if Belle Starr decided to become a decent citizen. She definitely decided to be a neighborly citizen. She took up her welcome mat for fugitives. She helped her neighbors when they were ill. But, a reputation is a difficult thing to shake. For the rest of her life, she was suspected whenever her neighbors were missing livestock. And, who is to say if she was guilty or not?
In 1889, Belle Starr was killed by a shot in the back as she returned home from a general store. As to who might have wanted her dead, the list was long. It included outlaws, her offspring, a former lover and her husband. The mystery remains one of the coldest of cold cases of the Wild West.
Belle of the Ball
Belle Starr gained more notoriety in death than she enjoyed in life. The woman who scorned skirts in favor of buckskins, wore a man’s Stetson hat with an ostrich plume, ran with infamous gangs, and liked to drink, gamble and shoot, was too much for the public to resist. She became the subject of dime novels and Belle Starr, the Bandit Queen, became a household name. Everyone from Gene Tierney and Jane Russell to Florence Henderson and Elizabeth Montgomery has portrayed her. Woody Guthrie wrote a song about her. And, she received a mention in a song by Bob Dylan.
Her grave is in Eufaula, Oklahoma. There, you will find her tombstone, engraved with a bell, a star, her horse, and a poem written by her daughter Pearl.
Happy Trails, y’all!